New Meadowlands, MIT CAU + ZUS + URBANISTEN

Living in permanent modernity

An interview with Alexander D’Hooghe on the condition of the contemporary city by Roel van Herpt

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An interview with Alexander D’Hooghe

An interview by Roel van Herpt

Alexander D’Hooghe runs the Organization for Permanent Modernity, an office and think tank for architecture and urbanism located in Boston and Brussels. The office works on durable solutions to the world’s toughest design challenges. Their core values: simplicity, modesty, and seriousness.

Besides his work for his design firm, D’Hooghe also directs the MIT Center for Advanced Urbanism and teaches Architectural Urbanism at MIT. He obtained his Ph.D. at the Berlage Institute in 2007, after studying Urban Design at the Harvard Design School, and Architecture and Civil Engineering at the University of Leuven.

In December 2013, I spoke with him on the future of urbanism. On why permanent modernity should be celebrated, but also on how urbanists can help people to live in this uncertain condition. In this respect, D’Hooghe advocates city resilience and a more refined use of smart city technologies.
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Your office is called the Organization for Permanent Modernity. What does its name reflect?

We have two ideological arguments for this name. One is about the celebration of permanent emancipation. Although we all grow up in fast-​changing environments, we are stuck in the conventions, clichés, and behavioral patterns that we acquire throughout the course of our lives. It is a sort of a prison in which we live. Most of the time we are unaware of this prison, but it limits us continuously. At our office, we aim to celebrate the emancipation from this prison. The condition of modernity is one that is liberating per se; a condition that casts off the burden of history. We believe this is amazing, rather than problematic, and therefore we should celebrate it. The challenge for architecture and urbanism is to incorporate this attitude. We should be respectful of history, but not follow it blindly. So whereas an architect like Aldo Rossi regards the templates for building typologies as timeless, we think these typologies should be continuously altered, revised, and substituted. The conventions of authority should be challenged and, if necessary, abolished. We aim to make this condition of modernity, one that is both revealing and destabilising, permanent.

The condition of modernity is one that is liberating per se; a condition that casts off the burden of history. We believe this is amazing, rather than problematic, and therefore we should celebrate it.

Our second argument is based on the huge identity crisis caused by the condition of permanent modernity. This crisis is manifested in the surge of far-​right politics and renewed interest in national identity and religion. Such conservative reactions create new myths and construct new prisons, which people use to protect themselves from destabilising changes. We do not want to disregard these sentiments. This identity crisis is legitimate, serious, and dramatic. Therefore, we believe architects and urbanists are responsible for helping people to deal with the unstable condition in which they find themselves. Our office not only celebrates the unstable, but also aims to reach out to people and make them feel at ease in continuously destabilising conditions.

Market Hall Brussels, Organization for Permanent Modernity

Market Hall Brussels, Organization for Permanent Modernity

Can you give examples of your work that both celebrate permanent modernity, and empower people to deal with it?

I can highlight three of our projects. One is a police station in Brakel, a small town in Belgium. It is a modest project in which we have translated our ideas quite explicitly. The building is slightly bent, as if it embraces the people that approach it. One part of the building is cantilevering off a landscape, creating an open space underneath it. To support the cantilever, we placed columns resembling policemen: 22 caryatids of four to five metres in height. The aim of our design is to make the police station more legible, accessible, and reliable.

Another project is a mixed-​use market hall in Brussels. Inspired by Louis Kahn, we wanted to create an open and flexible structure with little specifications, but at the same time a structure that does not abandon its formal clarity. Therefore we designed the building as a container that can be continuously emptied and filled with different programmes. It is made of concrete panels, each eight by eight metres in size and with slightly different designs, which can be arranged flexibly. At the same time, the façade of the market hall is monumental and explicit in its form. The building presents itself to the city and is clear about its role in urban society.

A third example is a theoretical project on the New York metropolitan area, which was published in Volume #9 (December 2006). Although executed before the financial crisis of 2008, the project forecast a similar crisis and described how a resentful proletariat would arise in its aftermath. Our question was: how can we create a renewed confidence in society through urbanism? Can we come up with urban interventions, especially in the areas where the poor and needy live, which give people more opportunities for mobility and access to jobs? In response to these questions we proposed a series of infrastructures that would reunite the fragmented post-​crisis and post-​urban terrain. Also, the project as a whole was conceived as a cultural artifact: it would employ people and evoke a sense of community and feelings of pride.

You now work on Rebuild by Design, a large competition organised after Hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012. The project aims to make the New York metropolitan area more resilient. Why did you choose to participate in this competition?

We believe the theme of the Resilient City is absolutely important for the future of urbanism. The current instability of our climate leads to the personal, emotional, and identity crises I talked about before. We have to fight to save our climate, but to be realistic, we are already too late for this. New disasters will inevitably happen. This is dramatic and fantastic at the same time. It is fantastic in the sense that it provides the opportunity to change the system. The New York metropolitan area is very vulnerable to climate change. In order to survive, things in this area have to be adjusted. That is why we, together with urban landscape designers ZUS and urban researchers De Urbanisten (both from Rotterdam), submitted projects for the competition.

New Meadowlands, MIT CAU + ZUS + URBANISTEN

New Meadowlands, MIT CAU + ZUS + URBANISTEN

Last month, the jury selected your project MEADOWLANDS: Productive City + Regional Park for further development in the next round. What is the essence of this project?

The project is located in New Jersey, on the same site as the project we published in Volume. In the last decade, there has been a clash between two groups in that area. One wants to protect the ecology of the area; the other is interested in developing it. At this point, the two powers are incapable of strengthening each other. As the area is situated next to Manhattan, it is inevitable to talk about developing it. At the same time, the area has serious ecological problems. We now propose to establish a new balance between the two conflicting interests. Our concept is a big regional park with new urban momentum on its borders. We do not propose a continuous urban ring, but a series of districts around the park that are protected independently. Each district has four essential ingredients:

  1. Landscape borders that purify and decontaminate the environment and function as a sponge in case of flooding.

  2. Evacuation routes via which people can leave the lower situated areas.

  3. A safe haven: a high-​quality public space with a survival kit – think of food, water, sewage, and communication supplies – that would allow people from the neighbourhood to survive for two to three weeks after a disaster.

  4. A mix of living and working that enables people and businesses to come together easily. Even in times of crisis, workers – often socially vulnerable people – can keep on working and companies can continue to operate.

The basic idea behind our decentralised protection systems is to increase the resilience of the whole area. In case one district is disrupted, the rest will keep on functioning.

At the MIT Center for Advanced Urbanism, you look at emergent technologies and their potential impact on the design of our cities. Which new technologies are most promising for our future cities?

The basic idea behind our decentralised protection systems is to increase the resilience of the whole area. In case one district is disrupted, the rest will keep on functioning.

Nowadays there is a lot of hype about smart cities. However, most of the smart city projects that we have seen so far are rather ornamental and don’t create a lot of enthusiasm. The question is how to use emergent technologies not as a gimmick, but as a way to improve the quality of life in our cities. For example, we could use smart city technology to collect more and better data on pollution and toxicity, to raise awareness and to act on that. Another important topic is logistics. Nowadays, trucking has a huge impact on our cities. It makes them more livable and more unlivable at the same time. With smart technology we can rethink and reorganise the delivery of goods to our cities. Ama​zon​.com for example announced that it is going to deliver orders with drones within a few years. Such developments will fundamentally impact the design of our future cities.

Smart Market Brussels, Organization for Permanent Modernity

Smart Market Brussels, Organization for Permanent Modernity

How does your plea for smart cities that improve people’s lives play a role in your own work?

Our Smart Market project provides real opportunities for growth. Its digital system of micro rentals activates and reinforces the informal community of the market.

I am very much inspired by the use of city technologies in informal societies. My MIT colleague Sarah Williams does very interesting work in this field. Based on mobile phone communication, she mapped the entire system of unofficial buses in Nairobi, making the world’s first bottom-​up mass transit map. While we in the West need a multi-​layered public administration to organise such things, in Nairobi and similar places this is not the case. New technologies can upgrade people’s lives in the city without the help of any public administration.

We are applying these developments to our own work. In Brussels we run a project called Smart Market. In a phenomenal, 50,000 m² immigrant market – the largest in the city – we are designing a system of micro rentals for people that do business there. Digital technology will structure the market in a non-​compulsory way. It brings us closer to the old modernist dream of an abstract, universal market square. But more importantly, our Smart Market project provides real opportunities for growth. Its digital system of micro rentals activates and reinforces the informal community of the market.